Pros and Cons of Stem Cell Research
Debates over the ethics of embryonic stem cell research have divided scientists, politicians, and religious groups for years. However, promising developments in other areas of stem cell research have led to solutions that help bypass these ethical barriers and win more support from those against embryonic stem cell research; the newer methods don't require the destruction of blastocysts.
Alternatives to Embryonic Stem Cells
Use of adult-derived stem cells—known as induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSCs)—from blood, cord blood, skin, and other tissues have been demonstrated to be effective for treating different diseases in animal models. Umbilical cord-derived stem cells obtained from the cord blood also have been isolated and utilized for various experimental treatments. Another option is the use of uniparental stem cells. Although these cell lines are shorter-lived than embryonic cell lines, uniparental stem cells hold vast potential if enough research money can be directed that way: pro-life advocates do not technically consider them individual living beings.
In 1998, the first published research paper on the topic reported that stem cells could be taken from human embryos. Subsequent research led to the ability to maintain undifferentiated stem cell lines (pluripotent cells) and techniques for differentiating them into cells specific to various tissues and organs.
The debates over the ethics of stem cell research began almost immediately in 1999, despite reports that stem cells cannot grow into complete organisms.
In 2000–2001, governments worldwide were beginning to draft proposals and guidelines to control stem cell research and the handling of embryonic tissues and reach universal policies to prevent the emigration of top scientists from countries. The Canadian Institute of Health Sciences (CIHR) drafted a list of recommendations for stem cell research in 2001. In the U.S., the Clinton administration drafted guidelines for stem cell research in 2000. Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and other countries followed suit and formulated their own policies.
Debates over the ethics of studying embryonic stem cells continued for nearly a decade until the use of IPSCs became more prevalent and alleviated those concerns.
In the U.S. since 2011, federal funds can be used to study embryonic stem cells, but such funding cannot be used to destroy an embryo.
The excitement about stem cell research is primarily due to the medical benefits in areas of regenerative medicine and therapeutic cloning. Stem cells provide huge potential for finding treatments and cures to a vast array of medical issues:
- Different diseases—including cancers, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and more—can be treated with stem cells by replacing damaged or diseased tissue. This can include neurons that might affect neurological diseases and even entire organs that need to be replaced.
- There is endless potential for scientists to learn about human growth and cell development from studying stem cells. For example, by studying how stem cells develop into specific types of cells, scientists potentially could learn how to treat or prevent relevant ailments.
Most arguments against stem cell research are philosophical and theological, focusing on questions of whether we should be taking science this far:
- The use of embryonic stem cells for research involves the destruction of blastocysts formed from laboratory-fertilized human eggs. For those who believe that life begins at conception, the blastocyst is a human life, and to destroy it is unacceptable and immoral.
- A similar theological problem is the idea of creating living tissue in a laboratory and whether that represents man taking on the role of God. This argument also applies to the potential for human cloning. For those who believe God created man, the prospect of man creating man is troublesome.
Two recent developments from stem cell research involve the heart and the blood it pumps. In 2016, researchers in Scotland began working on the possibility of generating red blood cells from stem cells in order to create a large supply of blood for transfusions. A few years earlier, researchers in England began working on polymers derived from bacteria that can be used to repair damaged heart tissue.